Having anyone threaten us is overwhelming. Threats can come from anywhere; your boss, spouse, your parents, strangers, and even an argumentative child. All of these avenues can send any of us into a tailspin. Typically, the tailspin comes in the form of Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Freak-out (the 4 f’s). Freak-out you may not have heard of before, yet (just a guess on my part) you probably have experienced it a few times. Let’s take a look.
Many situations lend themselves to the 4 f’s. Getting a dressing down at work, considering a career change, contemplating ending a relationship of any type can all trigger strong emotions. And, it’s in this emotional response that our neurological chemical cocktail gets shaken and maybe stirred too.
In the Beginning
These reactions and responses to life come from our very distant past. As we traveled in small bands of humans, we were beset by all manner of predators, from saber tooth tigers to other humans. And, as a survival strategy, our bodies gave us an edge, the ability to react without our conscious thought. Which is perfect when the ‘to react fast to survive’ is the appropriate response.
Fast forward to today, while we still have situations that require these unconscious reactions. For many of us, we are overwhelmed with psychological threats, far more than physical ones.
Psychological threats are any threat where we feel unsafe, yet, as we look around ourselves, we see that physically, there are no big tigers. What we have instead of a big tiger is a big mouth. That mouth is often saying any number of things, “You’re wrong,” “You’re a bitch,” “You’re an idiot,” “You’re fired,” “I disagree with you,” “Your beliefs are stupid,” “I don’t like you,” or any number of things that are said or we perceive said, or done, that feel like our sense of self is being threatened.
From this threat or perception of threat, we have all the same chemical cocktail released. The stress hormones – dopamine, epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline), and especially cortisol form the ingredients for how you will respond in any given situation.
These hormones are also neurotransmitters, which means they ferry information around your brain and your body. The chemical is released by your neurons (nerve cells) to send out signals to other nerve cells. Either calling in the troops or calming us down.
In an earlier blog, Catch and Release as a Powerful Way to Live Life, I talk about a lot of situations that can feel like threats. You might find the article useful.
The Cocktail Ingredients
Most of us have heard that dopamine is the feel-good chemical, and that is part of the equation. Dopamine is a motivational chemical that is connected to reward-motivated behaviors. If we anticipate a reward, it increases the dopamine in our brain.
What neuroscience now understands is that dopamine is not only attached to feeling good or pleasure, but rather it signals motivational propulsion, either toward or away from an outcome. So, if the brain determines that tigers can eat us, and the tiger running at us is threatening to eat us, then dopamine will trigger us to want to move away from the tiger.
The term you have most likely heard to describe epinephrine is adrenaline. This hormone as a neurotransmitter is to help regulate your body functions.
It is increasing blood flow to muscles, pupil dilation, and heart rate to move blood through your body. Adrenaline is what helps your body function at a higher capacity than when you are casually resting on your couch. It gets you up and moving at speed.
The primary function of norepinephrine is to mobilize the brain and body for action. During a threat situation, norepinephrine catalyzes your arousal and alertness; it promotes vigilance and focuses your attention.
Before that tiger is running at you, the hair on the back of your neck might rise, and you may become hypervigilant to danger. Thank norepinephrine for your alertness.
We have all probably heard of cortisol, the stress chemical. Most diet pills today tout that they help with cortisol production in an attempt to help us lose belly fat. What they are babbling on about is that cortisol is linked to blood sugar levels. Blood sugar in a stressful situation is the body’s way of making sure you have enough energy on hand to deal with whatever is stressing you.
Cortisol in large or regular quantities suppresses your immune system, as well as, slow bone formation, and acts as an aid in the metabolism of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Think about it this way, if the tiger is running at you, your immune system and your need to build bones aren’t necessary. Under the threat of the tiger, fast, cheap fuel (sugar) is what is needed to feed your body and aid you in survival.
Imagine it as a Dance
Now, imagine the dance. You arrive at your office, let’s say you may be hoping for a promotion. As you walk to your desk, you are feeling happy, you have a good expectation of a reward, a raise, a new title, and you are feeling great.
Then you make quick eye contact with your boss, your boss gives you a tight smile, but is not super friendly. All of a sudden, there is a pit in your stomach, and your body is changing. You have a feeling now that you don’t want to go into the meeting with your boss. The dopamine is shifting you from wanting to go towards something, to instead wanting to move away from something.
As this happens your dopamine start to call in the troops; the cocktail is getting primed for survival, it’s ready to boogie to your defense.
You muster your courage and go into your meeting. The norepinephrine has you on alert, and you are waiting for something to happen. And, the closer you get to the bosses office, you start to notice the adrenaline kicking in, your heart is pounding, your face is flushing, maybe your hands are sweating, you are in the middle of thousands of years of survival history, and you are on the brink of making a behavioral choice.
Fight, Flight, Freeze or Freak-out
This is where the 4 F’s come in. How we react to our “threat” will be determined by our habits of response to other threats and how we perceive our attacker.
In the case of our boss, the fear of losing our job if we fight them may shift us into a different survival strategy. We may sit mutely and listen to them speak, hearing mostly blah, blah, blah. If this isn’t a person in a position of power over us, we may respond with a fight response, we might call them names, or outwit them with our words.
I see the freeze response most often when the psychological threat has been going on for a while and the person is exhausted. They are at a loss as to how to either get free of the threat or end it. After we try flight, we may try fight, if neither seems to help, we may just stop and freeze. It’s as if our brain freezes and we need a reboot.
Freak-out is the 4thF, and it tends to show up as an anxious response. We may feel our minds racing, have difficulty catching our breath, start shaking, or any other number of indicators. We are caught somewhere between fight and flight. So, our response might look like a bit of both.
The 4 F’s are Flying. Now What?
Getting a handle on your threat responses is important on multiple levels. Being threatened by anyone to include yourself, or contemplating a leap into the unknown, might not constitute getting eaten by a tiger, but our brain is going to respond to the threat as though your very survival depends on it. Some people barely miss a beat, engaging their stress-fighting tools, while others find themselves doing the emotional equivalent of riding a bucking bronco.
For those of you, more likely to be on that wild out of control horse, I wanted to share a few techniques I use as the antidotes to threats. Just for good measure, these tools can be used anywhere. I personally have found myself laying on my office floor, working my way through them. I wrote about some of these tools in 6 Tips to Keep Your Cool in Any Situation.
In the short-term, your threat response could have you acting out in ways that do not serve your greater good. You could do damage where none was needed. You may have apologies to make or relationships to repair.
If your stress continues at a sustained level for a long time, it can lead to many physical and emotional illnesses. Some of the long-term effects of cortisol are conditions like, depression, anxiety, or other stress-related physical illnesses, such as stomach and gut issues, and even elevated pain, and inability to regulate your temperature.
Our breath is the lynchpin of our autonomic nervous system. On the one hand, our nervous system dictates our breathing, and on the other hand, we can influence our nervous system by using systematic breathing technics.
Consider that bucking bronco, when you’re in a panic, you may notice yourself breathing in a shallow or jagged pattern – or not at all. If you don’t practice your breathwork, then when you’re in the middle of the storm, you may forget to slow and regulate your breath. What happens the more you practice focusing on your breathing (slow and steady) is that you can influence your other nervous systems to calm also. Your heartbeat can slow, your gut can relax, and all this change is triggered by controlling your breath. Which, as you might guess, is far easier than trying to slow your heart rate.
I recommend taking time every day, multiple times a day, to shift your attention to your breath. I tend to practice each time I go to the bathroom. I close my eyes and focus on my breathing. Depending on the amount of water I drink, I could be practicing 8-10 times a day for a minute or two. This is the groundwork that allows me to access my breathing when I am in a stressful situation. In this case, practice makes available, and that is perfect.
Breathing also has the added benefit of getting oxygen to your brain, which can help us feel calmer and ultimately is grounding to our chaotic thoughts.
Shifting Your Focus
This is a brain regulating technique. Sit back and do a full-body scan. Notice any place that feels uncomfortable. Take a moment to thank that part of your body for doing its job and holding the discomfort. Then shift your attention to someplace in your body that feels good. Take a moment to appreciate that feeling and thank that part of your body for holding the comfort. Then shift your attention back and forth between the discomfort and the comfortable places. Acknowledging, appreciating, and thanking both the areas.
Repeat a version of, “Thank you for giving me information and supporting me to feel. I appreciate that I have access to my inner wisdom.” Use words that resonate for you. Stay focused on the feeling and notice if it shifts or changes as you repeat moving your attention back and forth. If you like this tool, I use it with clients to help them learn to regulate strong negative emotions. It creates a new neural network that we can move back and forth between a negative feeling and a positive one so that we are not stuck forever in the pain.
Sometimes focusing on something mesmerizing can calm your mind down also. Take time to find those tools that are going to help you move your attention away from what is stressing you out.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This is a process in which you lay down or take a seat comfortably. Beginning at either the top of your body or the bottom, you systematically tense groups of muscles as you breathe in, down into your belly, then relax as you breathe out in a long slow exhalation.
If you start at the top of your body, it might go like this:
- First, tighten your neck and shoulders, breathing into your belly, hold for a count of 5, then release with your exhale in a slow calming manner.
- Then tighten your core, stomach, and ribs, breathing into your belly, hold for a count of 5, then release with your exhale in a slow calming manner.
- Next, tighten your glutes and upper thighs, breathing into your belly, hold for a count of 5, then release with your exhale in a slow calming manner.
- Lastly, tighten your calves and either arch or flex your feet, breathing into your belly, hold for a count of 5, then release with your exhale in a slow calming manner.
- This process of tensing and releasing muscles will relax your body. It’s like a personal massage, it also helps to move the stress chemicals through your body and dissipate them.
It’s Not All in Your Head
You may notice that these techniques don’t involve your thinking or logic. Frankly, you are not going to logic your way out of stress, because while you are stressed, your brain doesn’t think in logical or rational ways. Also, the part of your brain responsible for the fight, flight, freeze, or freak-out is not logical or verbal, so “talking yourself down” isn’t effective without also using body techniques that help dissipate the chemical cocktail swirling in your system.
Once you’ve engaged body techniques and you’ve moved from being on high alert, take a moment look around you. Notice where you are, are you safe or unsafe? As you calm yourself, allow your natural curiosity to bubble up. Get curious about what happened that triggered the response? It’s probably more a psychological threat, versus an actual life-or-death situation (if it’s life or death, ignore this blog and let your body get you to safety!)
From this space of curiosity, pay attention. Notice that there’s nothing, right here, in this room, at this moment that is threatening your physical safety. What’s present are the thoughts influencing you. Begin to recognize that the only source of distress is coming from inside your own head. You can choose to listen, but you don’t have to.
Finally: A Few Words About Chronic Stress
Getting yelled at by your boss, or contemplating a pivot into a new career, moving across the country, getting in a relationship, leaping into the unknown might not constitute getting eaten by a tiger. But your brain is going to respond to the threat as if your very survival depends on it. While some people barely miss a beat, engaging their stress-fighting tools, others may find themselves doing the emotional equivalent of riding a bucking bronco.
For those of you, more likely to be on that wild out of control bronco; the tools are especially important. Practice them daily when you’re not stressed or upset. Link them to something you do all the time. When I drove to work, I would practice my breathwork at every red light. These micro practice times will help you prepare for bigger events; getting you off the rodeo horse and into your favorite tango.
My hope is that these techniques help you learn to calm yourself so your brain comes back online, and you can think more clearly. Remember that chemical cocktail will derail your ability to think.
Clear thinking = making a better choice.
That being said, if you’re in an environment where you are shifting through the fight, flight, freeze, or freak out multiple times a day; I invite you to see what’s possible for you to change your situation or your thinking about your situation. Constant stress will take a physical, mental, and emotional toll on you. Plus, your brain, body, immune system, and nervous system will thank you. And, remember you got this!
I would LOVE to hear from YOU!
- What tools have you mastered to calm yourself?
- What do you practice daily?
Lyssa deHart, LICSW, MCC is a Leadership Confidence and Whole Life Coach, and the author of StoryJacking: Change Your Inner Dialogue, Transform Your Life. Lyssa works with confidence challenged high achievers who are ready to rewrite the internal narratives that slow them down. Her clients include executives, senior leadership, and managers at organizations such as Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, the US Military, as well as with creative writers, actors, and artists.
What fires her up is working with smart people to trust their brilliance and develop the courage and confidence to believe in themselves and the work that is their purpose. If you are interested in meeting to see if you could benefit from working together, let's have a coffee and a chat.
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